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Obama and the Casselton Oil Train Explosion

President Frack-a-Lot

by STEVE HORN

On December 20, both chambers of the U.S. Congress passed a little-noticed bill to expedite permitting for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on public lands in the Bakken Shale basin, located predominantly in North Dakota. And on December 26, President Obama signed the bill into law.

Days later, on December 30, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight train owned by Warren Buffett carrying Bakken fracked oil exploded in Casselton, North Dakota. Locals breathed a smoky sigh of relief that the disaster happened outside the town center. In July 2013, a “bomb train” carrying Bakken oil exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

Dubbed the “Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Streamlining Act,” the bill passed unanimously in the Senate as S.244 and 415-1 in the House as H.R. 767, with Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) serving as the sole “nay” vote and 16 representatives abstaining. Among the abstentions were representatives Peter Defazio (D-OR), Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Campbell (R-CA).

H.R. 767’s sponsor is North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who received $213,150 from the oil and gas industry prior to the 2012 election, and an additional $29,000 for the forthcoming 2014 elections.

Cosponsors include Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis ($109,050 from the oil and gas industry pre-2012 election, $28,500 in the 2014 election cycle), South Dakota Republican Rep. Kristi Noem ($95,501 from the industry pre-2012 election, $20,400 pre-2014) and Montana Republican Rep. Steve Daines ($124,620 pre-2012 election and $87,412 pre-2014).

S.244 is sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who has taken $291,237 from the oil and gas industry since his 2010 election to Congress. Cosponsor Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) received $111,050 from the oil and gas industry since her 2012 electoral victory.

Sen. Hoeven visited BNSF’s Fort Worth, Texas, corporate headquarters on January 3 to meet with the company’s CEO, Matt Rose, “to get an update on the Casselton derailment and measures that can be taken to enhance railroad safety.”

“While it’s a blessing that no one was hurt in this accident, we must now work with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), industry and leaders on all levels to get to the root cause of this week’s derailment,” Hoeven said in a press statement, not mentioning the bill he sponsored will create additional oil-by-rail markets.

“We also need to rigorously review ways that shipping petroleum products by rail can be improved for safety.”

Energy Policy Act of 2005 Amendment

The BLM Streamlining Act passed into law by the Obama administration is actually an amendment to Section 365 of the Bush-era 2005 Energy Policy Act. It creates offices in North Dakota and Montana to rubber stamp fracking permits on public lands in those states.

Section 365 created a “Pilot Project to Improve Federal Permit Coordination” on public lands “to improve coordination of oil and gas permitting…as a means of meeting the Nation’s need for dependable, affordable, environmentally responsible energy,” explains the BLM website.

This compelled BLM to set up field offices to more efficiently fast track oil and gas drilling permits in Rawlins and Buffalo, Wyoming; Miles City, Montana; Farmington and Carlsbad, New Mexico; Grand Junction/Glenwood Springs, Colorado; and Vernal, Utah.

Left out of the original Section 365: North Dakota, the new darling of the U.S. domestic oil fracking scene. The BLM Streamlining Act “[r]eplaces the Miles City, Montana field office with the Montana/Dakotas State Office,” creating an open season for fracking North Dakota’s public lands.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 is perhaps most famous for the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempted the fracking industry from the legal dictates of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws. The loophole also made the chemicals contained in “fracking fluid” a trade secret, meaning the industry doesn’t have to disclose the recipe of chemicals injected into the ground in fracking operations.

Obama Executive Order: Fast-Track Bakken Permits

In March 2012, President Obama issued Executive Order 13604, lending an explanation to his signing off on the BLM Streamlining Act.

Obama announced the Order while standing in front of the sections of pipe that would soon become the southern half of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline (now rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline“) in Cushing, Oklahoma (the “pipeline crossroads of the world“) — a pipeline that will be fast-tracked by the Order.

But it did much more than that, calling on the federal government to “significantly reduce the aggregate time required to make decisions in the permitting and review of infrastructure projects.”

“The quality of our Nation’s infrastructure depends…on Federal permitting and review processes, including planning, aproval and consultation processes,” explains the Obama Order. “[I]t is critical that executive departments and agencies take all steps within their authority…to execute Federal permitting and review processes with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.”

Another key piece of that Order: creation of the Bakken Federal Executive Group.

The Group was created to find “ways to facilitate the development of oil and gas resources in the booming Bakken Formation,” according to Petroleum News Bakken.

“Interior continues to be a leader in implementing President Obama’s vision for a federal permitting process that is smarter [and] more efficient,” David Hayes, Department of Interior Deputy Secretary said in a June press release on the Bakken Federal Executive Group. “By coordinating across the many federal agencies involved in the Bakken region…we are able to offer a better process for industry.”

Just over a year later in May 2013, Obama issued a related follow-up memorandum to the Executive Order, calling for permitting time of major infrastructure projects to be cut in half.

“Rather Benign Bill…Rather Major Ramifications”

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2013, Cramer — sponsor of the House version of the bill — referred to the BLM Streamlining Act as a “rather benign bill with rather major ramifications.”

Cramer also referred to North Dakota as the “perfect laboratory” for streamlining of permits on public lands, saying “the North Dakota experiment will be one people look back on and say ‘That’s the way to do it, that’s the right way to do it.'”

Investor Press: “ND’s Oil Future Just Got Brighter”

Remarking on the bill’s passage, investor press outlet Motley Fool boasted, “North Dakota’s oil future just got brighter.”

Yet, not everyone’s happy about the bill. In an interview with DeSmogBlog, actor Mark Ruffalo — founder of the activist group Water Defense — asked the rhetorical question, “Who are these representatives working for?”

“What is clear is that in nearly every transaction Congress and this president does with the fossil fuel industry, the American people and the commons of public property, our public air and public water are up for sale for real cheap,” Ruffalo remarked.

“Not only are these transactions cheap but in the end we foot the bill of the costs of exploding trains and bursting pipelines carrying highly volatile explosive substances that no train nor pipeline is meant to carry in the form of Bakken crude oil.”

“North Dakota will be a case study of a land that was squeezed dry of every precious thing that beautiful state has been blessed with: its majestic beauty, clean air and water.”

Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based freelance investigative journalist and Research Fellow at DeSmogBlog, where this piece first appeared.